1Art, Culture, and the Autonomous, Free Humanity of Man;
The Universal Applicability of Living in Truth and Accepting Responsibility as Destiny
The essence of the conflict…
is not a confrontation between two ideologies
(for instance a socialist with a liberal one) but a clash between
an anonymous, soulless, immobile and paralyzing… power,
and life, humanity, being and its mystery.
The counterpart of power in this conflict is not an alternative political idea
but the autonomous, free humanity of man
and with it necessarily also art — precisely as art!–
as one of the most important expressions of this autonomous humanity”
Marykathryn Huffman (married: Gough)
Vaclav Havel: Morality in Politics
October 12, 2005
Czechoslovakia was at one time the seventh most industrialized state in the world; between World War II and the 1980s it fell to seventieth. Under Soviet Communist control for only forty years, it developed one of the worst pollution problems in Europe; television advertised gas masks for children to wear on their way to school, natural resources were heavily taxed, water was murky and unusable, and one could almost say that toxic chemicals were a main export of the country (AtVR, 46). Many obvious tragedies in the physical standards of living could be named, but there was a deeper problem underlying all those surface effects — something on the level of the human soul. The rigid control placed on people’s lives deadened them to themselves, estranged them from their true spirit, for “while life ever strives to create new and ‘improbable’ structures, the post-totalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states” (PotP, 30). The ideology held forth by the communist regime, “in creating a bridge between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality” (PotP, 30). Thus accustoming the citizen to living within layers of deceptive appearances, the ideology bridge assimilates them as part of the system itself, because “the moment he or she steps onto this bridge it becomes at the same time a bridge between the system and the individual and the individual as a component of the system” (PotP, 31, emph add.). The Czech people became both victims and instruments (PotP, 36). This was seen vividly in censorship, which occurred in many forms. The quality of much art changed, for example, because of artists’ desire to make a living. The effects of such Foucault-like oppression in particular are simply not measurable, because while robbing the artist’s life of “some of its naturalness and authenticity and turning it into a kind of endless dissimulation,” it also robbed culture and the entire community of innumerable sparks of life and creative inspiration (LtDGH, 8). The true enemy of the communist power structure was not another political ideology, but rather the power of art and its ability to uncover the truth. Yet the only way to live in this truth, to maintain “the autonomous, free humanity of man” that was able to challenge the system, was to accept a higher sense of responsibility than is naturally conceived of as desirable — to shoulder responsibility as destiny.
Czech playwrite and intellectual, Vaclav Havel was born in Czechoslovakia in 1936, close to the time the communists took control. Consequently he spent much of his life watching his country devolve and unravel and watching his people become demoralized. He wrote plays, was involved in absurdist theatre, and expressed his political views in endless criticisms of the communist government in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s and 70s. In 1989, an incredible bloodless revolution caused the communists to step down from power after four decades, allowing widespread systemic change throughout the country. The government was reshaped and turned over to serve the people in a democratic fashion, and Havel, ever an inspiration to his people, was caught up in the whirlwind, becoming the country’s fast-learning new president.
Havel’s literary career and experience as a dissident shaped him into a shepherd figure that his people looked up to — according to some, he was something like a cross between Mother Theresa and George Washington (AtVR, 37). Maintaining that systemic change was not a guarantee of improvement, Havel said that the main thing the revolution proved was that people have a basic openness to truth, touched upon by art and the development of culture. He remained an intellectual and a creative thinker and writer, stirring in people a desire for truth and, from his new platform, calling them to a life of conscience and responsibility.
Havel wanted to see his country remoralized, an reminded his people constantly that they must breathe spirit into the systemic changes that were occurring. He emphasized over and over again the importance of developing culture in the form of truth-revealing art, literature, and theater in order to accomplish this because such cultural art encourages authentic living in community, allowing groups to face problems, identify them, and deal with them honestly and creatively. His personal goal is to keep striving in a good cause, no matter the outlook, with as much sensitivity to his conscience as possible, recognizing that if one is committed to life, accepting responsibility is one’s destiny.
The mistake many people make when thinking of the baffling power of the communist regime lies in overestimating the importance of the individual leader, not realizing that “the social phenomenon of self-preservation is subordinated to something higher, to a kind of blind automatism which drives the system” (PotP, 30). Founded upon lies and hypocrisy as it is, the system finds it must rely on lie after lie after lie in order to preserve itself, building an unbelievably empty structure in which every citizen is expected to accept his or her place, and even the leaders become slaves to save face. Havel writes, “They must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their place within it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system” (PotP, 31).
As a dissident, Vaclav Havel spoke truth as he saw it and refused to live the lie presented to him. He saw integrity, wholeness, and self-consciousness as virtues that ought to be preserved in the interest of life itself — at all costs. He tried to remain sensitive to his conscience and sought to prevent the regime from alienating him from himself by witnessing to the truth everywhere he could. This led him to criticize the government’s treatment of humanity almost constantly, for which he spent at least five years in prison. He asks:
.. What is the effect on people of a system based on fear and apathy, a system that drives each man into a foxhole of purely material existence and offers him deceit as the main firm of communication with society?…. Think what you like in private, as long as you agree in public, refrain from making difficulties, suppress your interest in truth and silence your conscience– and the doors will be wide open to you. If the principle of outward adaptation is made the keystone to success in society, what sort of human qualities will be encouraged and what sort of people, one may ask, will come to the fore? (LtDGH, 14, 9).
In upholding his own human dignity through living in truth to the best of his ability, he hoped to contribute some small bit to the survival of life. His was a life constantly accepting a higher responsibility than mere support of a material subsistence– rather his was the life-long promotion of a living, breathing social organism — able to organize itself for the addressing of its internal problems rather than relying on a leader who grovels before an ideology that purports to know the aims of life better than those who live it.
Even the systemic change which occurred in 1989 is an aside when compared to the point Havel wants to make, and some of the people involved missed that point in the end as well, calling for communists to be punished, kicked out, and banned from every place of influence. And yet, even in spite of these sentiments, the Velvet Revolution was a miraculously peaceful revolution in which an entire country banded together to protest an oppressive government that had abused them for decades. Millions of people gathered for demonstrations, and more than 80% of the work force went on strike until finally the Communist party
… held an extraordinary congress at which it change[d] its structure, abolishing the position of general secretary and replacing it with two positions, Party chairman and first chairman…. It declare[d] its support for a multi-party system and promise[d] democratization of its internal affairs. It also disband[ed] the People’s Militia, its paramilitary arm, and apologize[d] to the Czechoslovak people for events following 1968 (AtVR, 20).
By the end of December, 1989, Havel– just two months out of prison– had been unanimously elected by the newly formed Federal Assembly as the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic (AtVR, 20).
Many people called for Havel to ban communists from every position of government influence, but Havel felt a danger in that, saying that when “respect for a theoretical concept… outweighs respect for human life… this is precisely what threatens to enslave humanity all over again” (PotP, 71). Dissident movements, he explained, “understand systemic change as superficial, something secondary, something that in itself can guarantee nothing. Thus an attitude that turns away from abstract political visions of the future towards concrete human beings and ways of defending them effectively in the here and now is quite naturally accompanied by an intensified antipathy to all forms of violence carried out in the name of ‘a better future’”(PotP, 71). From the dissident perspective, violent political overthrow is not too radical a response — it is not radical enough; the problem lies too deep for any systemic change to touch – because it is a human problem, and must be met as such if we are ever to get anywhere at solving it. It is the problem of being alienated from our selves, of being too familiar with lies and hypocritical facades, and being out of touch with the substance of what makes us human. Any system worth anything must grow out of that substance, working to keep its constitution and criminal code “in perspective against the background of life as it really is. [For w]ithout keeping one’s eyes open to the real dimensions of life’s beauty and misery, and without a moral relationship to life, this struggle will sooner or later come to grief on the rocks of some self-justifying system of scholastics…. [a system] can never give life substance or meaning” (PotP, 77, emph. add.). There was something though that, as exemplified in his own and others’ experience during the decades of oppression and stagnation, Havel felt did characteristically give life substance and meaning: art.
Art’s little sparks and flares during the years of communist rule were found to be threatening simply in virtue of their existence, for the blind automatism that wielded power was not unintelligent. It knew instinctually that where there was substance and meaning, its own substancelessness and meaninglessness — its own falsity — would be uncovered. As Havel says, it knew that it would be pronounced naked, like the Emperor in his new “clothes”, by the mere existence of — not a new dogma or political cry, but the simple, penetrating truth of art which never ceases to confront the human being with its self. Art has a powerful way of drawing out truth in the lives of individuals by allowing them to identify actively with who they really are, what they really think, and where they are at — compelling them to look straight into the face of their humanity and at what is inescapably essential to their being. “If we start,” Havel says, “with the presupposition that art constitutes a distinctive way of seeking truth — truth in the broadest sense of the word, that is, chiefly the truth of the artist’s inner experience — then there is only one art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth, or perhaps the urgency and profundity of this truth.” (LIT, 131) It is because of this that when the communist regime looks at art, literature, and theater, it finds that
… the degree to which politics is present or absent has no connection with the power of artistic truth… Hundreds of examples testify that the regime prosecutes most vigorously not what threatens it overtly but has little artistic power, but whatever is artistically most penetrating, even though it does not seem all that overtly ‘political’ (LIT,133).
Havel speaks of an index of names of censored works and authors, but also of a “blank index” as being “an open warrant for the arrest of anything inwardly free and, therefore, in the deepest sense, ‘cultural’”(LtDGH, 20). The arrest of culture in effect removed the societal apparatus by which people helped each other find themselves and by which they joined together to search for the best way to do things. He likens cultural works in society to vitamins in a human body, noting that fractional deficiencies in either can have far-ranging and unforeseeable results (LtDGH, 21). Because of the threat of its lie being unveiled, the regime sought to silence and placate authors by suppressing original works while at the same time handing out prizes, money, and awards. In this way it hoped to materially imprison creative souls in apathy and the desire to protect the enjoyable lifestyle offered them at the hands of their oppressors. By immobilizing culture, the regime paralyzed society’s ability to know its soul. Society, self-less then and enshrouded in lies, was easy to maneuver into the fold of falsity that supported the order and calm communism so idolized. As a result, the society was described by some as metaphorically dead, in a way: “Calm as a morgue or a grave” (LtDGH, 25).
Underneath that, however, Havel explains in an essay entitled Six Asides About Culture, he saw life struggling to surface for sustenance wherever it could be found– that there was nothing the people of Czechoslovakia wouldn’t do for a taste of culture. Young people traveled half-way across the entire country for a concert that might not happen at all. People stood in line all night for tickets to the plays for that month, and when they came the theaters were “crammed full of people grateful for every nuance of meaning, frantically applauding every knowing smile from the stage” such that it was almost a struggle to keep moving and complete the plays (SAAC, 125).
Seeing this, Havel felt, was testament to the fact that people are fundamentally open to truth. According to him:
… Individuals can be alienated from themselves because there is something there to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence…living a lie [on the one hand]… is a response to nothing other than the human predisposition to truth. Under the orderly surface of the life of lies… there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth… living in the truth [on the other hand] takes individuals back to the solid ground of their own identities (PotP, 41, 44).
Any legitimate system ought to encourage the individual citizen’s groundedness in his or her own identity. It is only from this ground that any healthy, self-organizing principle will spring.
Vaclav Havel had been released from jail, due to serious illness, only two months before his election as president on December 29, 1989. Between World War I and World War II Czechoslovakia was lucky enough to have a president named Masaryk, “an intellectual and liberal statesman” who tended to try to “remain above the din of party politics,” and worked to keep the country out of communist hands for years (AtVR, 37). Havel has followed in his footsteps in a variety of ways, from his refusal to identify in name with either left or right party politics (he says that over-emphasis on parties… “displaces a responsible interest in the prosperity and success of the broader community”) to his mottos : “Truth prevails.” and “Do not be afraid and don’t steal”(AtVR, 42, SM, 55, AtVR, 88-89). “If we teach ourselves not to lie and steal,” he told his people in one of his first speeches as president, “things will turn out alright” (AtVR, 88-89). Such a statement may sound simple and even juvenile to us, but the experience of the Czech and Slovak people in past decades has given such advice more depth and relevance than we could perhaps imagine.
Havel tried to make it clear that he was only accepting the job of president for a time, and that he was “looking forward to returning to his writing,” but some speculated that he had found his proper profession in politics (AtVR, 42). One commentator, for example, asked whether “it [could]
be that the author, who was always as much a moral philosopher and social commentator as a playwrite, has found his true vocation?” (AtVR, 42-43). A fellow writer, Ivan Klima, expressed the sentiment that Havel’s essays were better than his plays, and it was true as well that although he’d never been trained to give speeches, when life called upon him to do the unfamiliar work, he took to it like a fish to water.
Initially, he was to be President only in the interim while the country prepared itself for its first free election; he was to help organize the new structure of the government and begin the process of addressing the many wrongs that had been done to the land and its people during the decades of communist rule. But come election time, the job was offered him again, and although he craved a different life he also expressed a strong belief that he should not abandon the battlefield. He felt a keen responsibility to finish the thing he had started. As such a prominent figure in the fight, his conscience would not allow him to step down and wait for someone else to finish the job, and in any case, it would be a demoralizing thing for the people if he retreated to the comfortable routine of his own life. He needed to be faithful to the task and see it through until circumstances made it clear that his time was done. So he accepted the responsibility.
One summer toward the end of his time in office, he wrote a compilation of thoughts entitled Summer Meditations in which he reflects on his years as president, on politics and his own involvement in it. Many people are of either the active or passive opinion that politics is a disreputable business, through and through, but Havel says that it isn’t, in essence, and that that fact ought to be remembered (SM, 10). What it is in essence is service, and that is a good thing, when carried out with spirit and in good conscience. “Those who claim that politics is chiefly the manipulation of power and public opinion, and that morality has no place in it, are just wrong,” he says emphatically (SM, 5-6). He states further that
… naturally, if you understand decency as a mere “superstructure” of the forces of production, then you can never understand political power in terms of decency…[but] Political intrigue is not really politics, and, although you can get away with superficial politics for a time, it does not bring much hope of lasting success… one can hardly improve the world that way (SM, 5-6).
Genuine politics is equated in his mind with serving the community and those who will come after us (SM, 5-6).
In his own political work, in addition to pragmatically attempting to address the problems inherited from the previous regime, Havel works to do exactly what he did as a playwrite, which is something he feels is part of the job of a politician as well. It is his identity as a writer and as a politician to attempt to wake up his people, to give them the food their souls need in order to keep living authentically, with spirit, ingenuity and a sense of meaning in the midst of life. What he’s doing amounts to more than just wrapping problems prettily and attempting to address them practically at the same time.
One could look at his idealism and his speeches and decide that he’s offering a new ideology — but he’s not. That is precisely what he is not doing. What he’s offering is much more than an ideology in that it frees people, making them ever-more aware of their autonomy and their human possibilities. He is still offering art, but art that is meant to confront his society with its very self, and to ask it to fill the emptinesses it finds there itself– “you have what it takes!” he wants to tell them. He knows his own prescriptions will fall woefully short of the vitality and complexity needed to respond to the problems in his country and around the world; he is simply pointing his finger at the way we are living, confronting us with ourselves, and asking us to take responsibility for the way life is authored. Far from offering a new ideology, an inert lie to cling to like dogma, Havel is challenging his people to walk a path fraught with demons of their own making, to look into their own souls and learn to live authentically and humanly and creatively enough to heal themselves. He is challenging them to live in truth, not another lie. And the truth makes us free.
Havel asks provocatively in a collection of writings entitled Living in Truth, “Can we separate the awakening human soul from what it always, already is — an awakening human community?” (LIT, 135). The fulfillment of community must happen in a grounded, honest way, breathing spirit and the true substance of humanity back into the way we do everything. And if the meaning of the state is human, then “it must be intellectual, spiritual, and moral,” and “in the somewhat chaotic provisional activity around the technical aspects of building the state, it will do us no harm occasionally to remind ourselves of [that]” (SM, 19). There is too much reliance on the technical as an answer, and not enough relying on — or searching in — ourselves.
It is because of this human soul, this human element to community that “no state… [is] the clever technical invention of a team of experts, like a computer or a telephone. Every state, on the contrary, grows out of specific intellectual, spiritual, and cultural traditions that breathe substance into it and give it meaning”(SM, 18-19). In the post-totalitarian system, ideology attempts to take the place of the human spirit and the result is a dead thing perpetuating itself by eating people alive, making them a part of its subsistence structure. Instead of serving them as it ought, it forces them to serve it — leaders and citizens, all become victims and instruments (PotP, 36).
According to Havel, the answer to this situation is a moral reconstitution of society, a spiritual revival in which we bring soul back into society’s technical order (PotP, 92). What needs to occur is “a reintroduction of the human order which cannot be replaced by any political order” (PotP, 92). And he says the political consequences of this reintroduction will be
… a new spirit… [the] rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, solidarity, love… [and] structures aimed not at ‘technical’ aspect of the execution of power, but at the significance of that execution… aris[ing] from below as a consequence of authentic ‘self-organization’; they should derive vital energy from a living dialogue with the genuine needs from which they arise, and when these needs are gone, the structures should also disappear (PotP, 93).
Politics is not a technical structure, at core. It is and ought to be an organism, a social organism in which free-thinking and acting individuals work to create groups — free-radical groups, if you will — that are constantly in flux in order for the needs of the whole to be met. The peaceful events of the Velvet Revolution should make it obvious that this continually changing, organic self-organization is possible. Why can it not be sustained, its varying state and content a reflection of the aims of the creative, diversifying force of life?
What compelled Havel to change his life so dramatically? He expresses doubt in himself often, that he is not as fit for the job as he would like to be. He admits that the enjoyable parts of having power have a real draw for him as well. But he sees that danger, admits to it, and is properly afraid of it. Refusing to make excuses for himself, he tries his utmost always to separate what is really necessary for his position from what is simple luxury. Despite the dangers and difficulties involved in keeping his aim true and his motives pure, Havel feels that “guided as president by conscience, [he] cannot go far wrong,” and also calls for those alive to their consciences everywhere to participate in politics (AtVR, 79). It is not an imperative: “every moral person should be in politics because they are needed — so get out there and run for office!” No, Havel understands that people have different tasks and destiny calls to everyone in different ways and at different times. But he defines politics broadly, including all grass roots groups and political criticism. There are many ways to be involved. His plea is only stating the truth he sees: that conscience-stricken people are the very ones who are needed, for they are the ones who will do what needs to be done with real, human spirit and honesty and a true desire to serve others. It is clear to him “that intellectuals cannot forever avoid their share of responsibility in the world, hiding their distaste for politics under a supposed need for independence” (AtVR, 79). Havel is not stating an imperative that all morally awake people should be politicians; it is simply a plea that we no longer refuse to dirty our hands with something base and useless, because politics’ identity is not founded on baseness, nor is it fundamentally useless. The reason the political realm has become such a morally degenerate place is because spiritless people make it so. Who will re-infuse spirit if not the people who are aware of it? The people who see it and value it? “Science, technology, expertise, and so-called professionalism are not enough,” Havel proclaims. “Something more is necessary… It is a way of going about things, and it demands the courage to breathe moral and spiritual motivation into everything, to seek the human dimension in all things” (SM, 20). We all must listen more to our conscience in order to bring this “order of humanity” back to the political organism. Havel couldn’t be more right — no political order can ever replace the human spirit.
For all his idealism and the vitality of the hopeful pictures he paints for us, Havel recognizes utopian thinking as a danger, stating that it is important to know that one can make no promises. “Evil will remain with us,” he admits sadly (SM, 16).
…No one will ever eliminate human suffering, the political arena will always attract irresponsible and ambitious adventurers and charlatans. And man will not stop destroying the world. In this regard, I have no illusions. Neither I nor anyone else will ever win this war once and for all. . .Yet I still think it makes sense to wage this war persistently. It is an eternal, never-ending struggle waged not just by good people against evil people, by honourable people against dishonorable people, by people who think about the world and eternity against people who think only of themselves and the moment. It takes place inside of everyone. It is what makes a person a person, and life, life… There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause (SM, 16).
There is nowhere he has made this belief more clear than in his acceptance of the role of president; he met a particularly earth-shattering instance of destiny handing him unexpectedly weighty responsibility that startling December. If “responsibility as destiny” is a good motto for Havel’s life, as Jan Vladislav says in concluding his introduction to Living in Truth, nowhere is it made manifest more boldly than in his resounding “Yes!” to the responsibility placed before him that day. He would have been happy voicing his truth anywhere, he says — had been, in fact — in prison, in theaters, in his marriage, in school, as an intellectual, in his writings, and would have gone on living in truth wherever he found himself. When faced with a new and unfamiliar — but important — arena in which to learn to do so, he did not back down, but chose to live in that new sphere with as much awareness and conscience as he was able, to do his utmost there with sincerity, integrity and vision, as who he was. He chose to shoulder the responsibility and conscientiously lived as honestly as he could, face-to-face with himself, in the place where he was put.
Responsibility as destiny is a good motto, and the amazing web-like connectedness of everything in the universe makes acknowledging our responsibility look like a wise choice. The more we know about how interconnected things are, the wiser it looks. And yet, somehow, we still manage to avoid looking straight at the truth that we have a responsibility to that world, and for it– not just a responsibility to and for ourselves (PotP, 80).
One can only hope that we will not grow callous to the ability of art and culture to uncover truth and give us reason to accept it. It is the only hope for the continuance of this amazing power Havel calls “the autonomous, free humanity of man” which so recently faced down and overthrew a totalitarian government without shedding a drop of blood.
Havel, Vaclav, et al. The Power of the Powerless; Citizens Against the State in Central Europe. Armonk, New York. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 1990. (PotP)
Havel, Vaclav. The Art of the Impossible; Politics as Morality in Practice. New York. Fromm International Publishing Corporation. 1998. (TAotI)
Havel, Vaclav.“Six Asides About Culture.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LIT)
Havel, Vaclav.“Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LtDGH)
Havel, Vaclav, et al., Tim D. Whipple, ed. After the Velvet Revolution; Vaclav Havel & the New Leaders of Czechoslovakia Speak Out. New York. Freedom House. 1991. (AtVR)
Havel, Vaclav. Tom Stoppard, ed. Largo Desolato. New York. Grove Press. 1987. (LD)
Havel, Vaclav. Open Letters; Selected Writings, 1965-1990. New York. Vintage Books. 1991. (OL)
Havel, Vaclav., Paul Wilson, trans. Summer Meditations. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1992. (SM)
Havel, Vaclav., Paul Wilson, trans. Disturbing the Peace; A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1990. (DtP)
Lukes, Igor. Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler; The Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930’s. New York. Oxford University Press. 1996. (CBSaH)
Weber, Eugen. A Modern History of Europe; Men, Cultures, and Societies from the Renaissance to the Present. New York. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.1970. (p. 751-1106). (AMHoE)